In my professional development, May is a significant month. In May 2015 I started my professional coach certification. This year in May I got my Doctor of Business Administration degree. Learning is one of my values and top strength. And one thing I learned about education is that education and learning, sadly and often, not the same thing. Here is my opinion about the three main differences that perhaps explain the growing gap between learning sought by many active adults, and education, the value of which is increasingly questioned.
Learning is a matter of passion. One of the downsides of my focus on learning as a youth was that I only learned to cook late in life. And the first thing I discovered about cooking was that it was my passion. I spent uncountable hours exploring recipes, discovering ingredients, and perfecting my skills. Oh, those long hours that my family had to wait for meals! Or those mountains of dirty pots and pans! Or the bucket loads of meals that did not ‘come out’. Trial and error, triumph, and embarrassment. Cuts, burns, and back pain. ‘Thank God, I am not a chef’. ‘Can we please order take out today?’ As I whip up a quick meal these days, I celebrate those long hours. Try to account for all the time you spent learning ‘your thing’ – be it playing your favourite sport, practicing a language you like, or mastering technology that supports your hobbies…
Passion about the subject of learning sustains people as they progress through clumsy moves, burnt cakes, wasted canvas, and awkwardness of our first sentences in a foreign language.
Passion breeds motivation to persist with effort, to seek feedback, to keep trying different approaches. It propels us to mastery as we stretch beyond the edge of our abilities, and we stay there perfecting the craft.
The science of peak performance and the science of effective change suggest that enjoying the experience is the first step to improvement and change, which are the top two goals of the learning process.
Structured formal education programs often feature mandatory subjects, prescribed reading, and a defined learning format. While structure supports discipline and consistent knowledge, it is also one of the root causes behind dwindling motivation, skyrocketing student attrition, and mediocre results.
Learning is an embodied experience of life. When I picked up a watercolor brush in October 2019, it happened almost on a whim. I have never been an art student. As I locked myself in a rented apartment in Kyiv to complete my dissertation, one day my body declared a need to switch from ratio to emotio, from a logical process of data analysis to an unpredictable dance of water, pigment, and brush. On my desk, a watercolor palette and a pad were set at an opposite end from my laptop, index cards, and a stack of coffee-stained printouts of scholarly articles. Every day I would simply switch the sides of the table and lose myself in painting. I spend almost no time on theory – a couple of video tutorials here and there. Most of the time I was just following my body – as I smelled paint coming out of the tube, heard the brush swirling in the water, and watched the pigment forming unpredictable patterns on wet paper. Until today, this embodied experience is a signal for and the purpose of my watercolor practice.
Formal education is heavily skewed towards theory. The process is loaded with classes, lectures, reading. The most common practice in under – and postgraduate education is called ‘paper’. And more often than not, such practice has nothing to do with the practical application of the subject as a direct experience of a student. Enters struggle to retain new knowledge and to translate it into a consistent application.
When we learn things that add value to our lives, we cannot wait to practice them. As we apply them in the context of our life and work, the feedback on our performance immediately adds depth, meaning, and value to our learning.
Through the embodied experience we learn to ‘know in our bones” setting the base for mastery.
Traditionally scholars distinguished experiential and vicarious learning, suggesting that the latter one involves observation, study, and copying the model’s practice by a passive learner. A more updated view on vicarious learning suggests that, in fact, such learning only happens via an active involvement of the learner, who seeks and directs the process through a relationship with the model.
Learning is interactive. For the last six years, I work as an executive coach. I received my professional coach training and certification from the CoActive Training Institute, a prominent player in the field of leadership development. I remember during training and certification all we did was practice coaching. There were three roles we would play in the process – a coach, a client, or an observer. And we were constantly getting tons of feedback. Immediate, candid, structured, useful, not very useful at the moment, positive, negative, neutral – lots of it. In the moment and in writing. In addition, we had to reflect on our practice and summarize our learning. And then share it to get more feedback. And practice some more. In that ocean of practice and feedback, there were islands of quick theory discussion, a book or video suggested, but those stops were never long. For me, the 10-month process was a series of start-stop practice and feedback cycles.
In the process of learning, we engage with the objects of our efforts (i.e. paint and paper), as we interact with other people who cooperate with, compete against or ignore us. As part of such interaction, we face counteraction and feedback. Sometimes it is reassuring, other times disheartening. In the process, we deepen and internalize knowledge, master our skills, and gain confidence. The unexpectedness and novelty of feedback in a learning interaction point to what is possible, what’s working, or not working, thereby charting the path for future learning.
As we engage in learning with peers, practicing with different people, we compare, contrast, and compete with others and ourselves, we build versatility and finesse.
In his widely popular and largely misunderstood research on achieving expert performance, Dr. Anders Ericsson confirmed that the deliberate approach to practice (vs. the number of hours spent on it) was a key factor in achieving expert performance. Deliberate practice involves the repetition of tasks with well-defined and increasingly difficult goals, followed by immediate focused feedback from a teacher or coach.
I am grateful to all the teachers who designed and delivered the formal education programs I benefited from. And I wish we allow formal education to follow the path of the natural learning that is passionate, embodied, and interactive – what works for most adults.
Now firmly on the way of life-long self-directed learning, I create professional training programs that I would love to attend myself – they are built around passions, offer direct embodied experience, and provide constant interactions of interactive practical learning. Come talk about how and why to learn coaching skills and discover coach training programs I offer this summer.